Humiliation as a precedent for opportunity.

“Oh my god, did you see that?!?” I had spotted a dumpster full of discarded construction trash in the center median of the busy street.

We circled the block to look more closely.  The dumpster walls rose four feet from the concrete, and contained within them was a treasure trove of construction detritus from a nearby home remodeling.  The neighborhood is a classic Los Angeles strip known as “The Miracle Mile.” The home being remodeled was from the time that this part of LA was built, so the dumpster was full of large beams and some ornate door locks and trim pieces, also rusty nails and broken concrete.

We found the homeowner and asked if we could scrounge around for anything.  “Can we have some of your trash?” we asked. “Yes?” she said, answering our question with her own deeper and in some ways existential question.  The only catch was that the dumpster was being hauled away in 45 minutes, leaving us no time to get my truck to make a haul.  If we wanted this stuff, we would have to haul it back on foot, like Himalayan sherpas.

The dumpster was about a mile from the workshop, where the wood would be useful.  The roads were hilly, and the asphalt cracked and potholed.  This was a three part adventure.  First, a walk with our empty carts down to the dumpster. Second, a rummage session in the dumpster, loading up our carts while commuters hurtled by us on both sides. Third, a mile long trek back to the shop through commute-time traffic and multiple four way intersections.  Our wood-hauling means were limited. I drafted an unwilling welding cart into service.  This cart is about two feet tall, four feet long and about a foot wide, it is comprised of a lower rectangle base, four uprights, and another rectangle on top where the welder sits.  It is made of thin walled square tubing–so it basically looks like a rolling bare metal cubist art piece. It rolls on four caster wheels, which make steering impossible.  Gar employed his shitty but occasionally useful blue plastic cart that we use to haul around the pressure washer and job-specific tools in the shop.  This cart is purpose-built for awkward interaction.  It’s bright blue, and is a strange dimension of being much taller than it is wide or long, and has a folding handle that smashes your fingers when it unfolds. Getting the wood back to the shop would mean handling these loaded implements through traffic and a crowded, upscale neighborhood filled with people walking their dogs and driving home from work.

Is really humiliation? Well, everyone’s own dignity/humility-meter varies based on their personality and their personal history.  But this instance, I would say that the physical effort to get these materials is to me actually very low.  Given the same amount of distance through an unpopulated area, I would have had no hesitation about foraging in the dumpster.  Honestly, the only source of inhibition for getting this stuff was the idea of “what people would think” as I inconvenienced them with forty board feet worth of wood beams spilled in front of their Lexus. It was a close call between not doing this, and the opportunity to make something cool out of a bunch of free stuff.

I keep these moments in my mental back pocket for when I get a little ahead of myself, or a little too indulgent in arbitrary accomplishment. This is not a story of contrarian pride and laughing at the conformists who don’t dig around in construction trash.  This is a story about me wanting to accomplish a goal at some risk to my own self-assigned importance. One of the most important tenets in Buddhism is to be able to bury your ego and do what needs to be done.  This is because Buddhism recognizes that humiliation and accomplishment are right next to each other.  Humiliation requires us to open our minds, submit to a situation, and act like beginners–essential steps to moving forward.  Accomplishment is moving forward from this space–however far and through whatever means. In this context, wherein we try to make nice things out of reclaimed wood, how else are we going to get reclaimed wood without reclaiming it?  It requires the humiliation of asking someone for their trash, digging through a dumpster, wheeling it home, and then working with the substrate of woodworking. In the end, nobody sees all that and it is easy to back-navigate to the end of the process and think that it is an easy decision to do all this, but there are strong impediments to humiliation that keep us from doing a lot of things we enjoy.  I am 100% certain that we, a neuroscientist and a tenured professor, looked ridiculous.

It was time for phase one.  I unloaded my welder, Gar got his shitty cart, we put on some work clothes and some work gloves and we sauntered around the block to the dumpster.  It was about a half mile walk, and luckily very few cars came down the streets and we were able to comfortably occupy the center of the road.  The dumpster was on a much busier street.  It is on a hill on a treelined street.  There were two lanes on each side of it, and it was parked in the center of the road in a turn lane.  We situated our carts on the uphill side of the dumpster and got to digging.  The beams turned out to be in pretty good shape, very old and super heavy.  We think they are Spruce or Douglas Fir.  They were twelve feet long and twelve inches wide, covered in paint and dinged up by years of joist-based strain. Below the beams, I found some really cool hardware and a few lengths of nice trim.  By the end of our digging, my welding cart was holding up about 300 pounds of wood. The wood was overhanging on each side by about five feet, and the beams were stacked on top like the devil’s jenga.

We rolled out from the dumpster just as a stop light up the street turned green, which flooded the intersection with cars.  I rolled up to the stop sign, waved to the confused lady in the Suburban and proceeded to push the cart through the intersection.  So far so good.  The streets from there were much narrower, but thankfully with less traffic.  I figured once we got off the main road we would be okay.  I had a couple of cars roll by me the opposite direction, and I had to maneuver into a driveway to avoid another car behind me.  The welding cart was actually doing fine as long as I stayed on the downhill side of the cart in order to steer the cart.

Unfortunately, as I was making the turn up to Gar’s street, another car came up behind me.  Gar had already cleared the driveway and was making his way back to me–but I still had to move forward to keep traffic going.  I had nowhere to go except forward, pushing my cart up the street in front of the car.  I looked back and shrugged at what I saw to be an older lady in a Jaguar and she looked at me with what I perceived to be a mild derision.  Mercifully, a car that had been parked on the side of the street pulled out, allowing me to sidle over.  The Jaguar-lady rolled by me with a look of shock and disbelief.  I watched her idle by at the world’s slowest pace, then turn around and park right across where I needed to rotate my cart to get into the driveway.  She rolled down the window and stared at me. I was only about 50 feet from the drive way.  There were no cars coming so I moved the lumber barge back into the road. The shop has a large tree in front of it, and the roots of the tree have turned the road there into an apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy earthquake scene-scape.  The lady in the Jaguar watched as I swung the cart around and I had to lift one caster wheel at a time over the potholes and ledges in the concrete  I pushed the cart over the final gap and this forced the opposite wheel to fall into another chasm.  In slow motion, the cart began to lose it’s center of gravity and tipped over like a collapsed building.  Twelve foot beams scattered over the concrete like pickup sticks. I did a quick double-dutch jump as the beams fell toward me and made it out of the way.  Expecting some scorn, I looked over at the lady in the Jaguar and she was smiling at me and said, “You were so close! I was cheering for you! You almost made it!”

We finished the first table made out of the scrap wood today. Here are some pictures from how we put it together:

This is what the beams looked like as we grabbed them from the dumpster.  Note the use of Ikea chairs as lumber rack. This is about half of what we hauled back.

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I built this frame from raw steel, which was purchased from a real store like a normal person.

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Here is a shot of the table top that Gar made–note that we still need to square off the sides, rout the edges and put a finish on it.  The jointed and glued joint is just about perfect–no gaps and it feels like one solid piece.  The top is about 40 pounds. He also filled the nail holes with dowels and I think it looks great.  We’ll use a light stain so that the end grain of the dowels shows up.

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The first thing we have made from one of the beams–in a state that is about 90% finished.  Gar built the table top by planing, jointing, and gluing the wood.  He also took on the detail of filling the nail holes in the wood with some dowels–which I really like.  I built the base out of some rectangular tubing.  I say not too shabby for something that we found in a dumpster–well worth the humiliation.

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